Scientists find 10 new defense systems used by bacteria

In lab tests, the gene families appear to fight virus attacks


VIRAL ATTACK  Viruses called phages (shown landing on the surface of a cell in this transmission electron micrograph) can infect and kill bacteria. Scientists have just found a slew of new defense mechanisms that help bacteria resist such assaults.

Webridge/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since long before it gained fame as a precise gene-editing tool, CRISPR has had another job defending bacteria against viral invaders. And it’s far from alone. Ten sets of bacterial genes have similar, newly discovered defense roles, researchers report online January 25 in Science.

The discovery “probably more than doubles the number of immune systems known in bacteria,” says Joseph Bondy-Denomy, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Bacteria are vulnerable to deadly viruses called phages, which can hijack bacteria’s genetic machinery and force them to produce viral DNA instead. Some bacteria protect themselves against phage attacks with a system called CRISPR, which stores pieces of past invaders’ DNA so bacteria can recognize and fend off those phages in the future (SN: 4/15/17, p. 22). But only about 40 percent of bacteria have CRISPR, says study coauthor Rotem Sorek, a microbial genomicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. That’s why he and his colleagues are hunting for other defense mechanisms.

Defense-related genes tend to cluster together in the genome, Sorek says. So his team sifted through genetic information from 45,000 microbes, flagging groups of genes with unknown functions that were located near known defense-related genes. 

Many of the bacteria with these gene families hail from far-flung locations like the bottom of the ocean. So the researchers used the genomic data to synthesize the relevant bits of DNA and inserted them into Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis, which can both be grown and studied in the lab. Then, the researchers tracked how well the bacteria resisted phage attacks when various genes in a family were deleted. If getting rid of some of the genes affected the bacteria’s ability to fight off phages, that result suggested the group of genes was a defense system.

Nine groups of bacterial genes turned out to be antiphage defense systems, and one system protected against plasmids, another source of foreign DNA, the researchers found.

Previously discovered antiphage protective systems, such as CRISPR, have been described with acronyms, but, Sorek jokes, “we ran out of acronyms.” So the new systems are named after protective deities — like the Zorya, a pair of goddesses from Slavic mythology.

The data also reveal a possible shared origin between bacterial immune systems and similar defenses in more complex organisms, Sorek says. Some of the genes contained fragments of DNA that are also known to be an important part of the innate immune system in plants, mammals and invertebrates.

It’s likely the research will unleash a flurry of new studies to figure out how these new defense systems work and whether they, like CRISPR, might also be useful biotechnology tools, Bondy-Denomy predicts. 

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